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World Kiswahili day: Why Kenyans still struggle to communicate in language

July 7 is World Kiswahili day. [UNESCO]

Kenyans today joined the rest of the world in marking the first-ever World Kiswahili Language Day.

Kiswahili is currently one of the official languages not only in the East African Community but also in the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The credit goes to the declaration by the 41st Session of the UNESCO member states in 2021 that declared July 7 the World Kiswahili Language Day.

Kiswahili has also found a home as a language and as an area of study in many universities in Europe, the US, Canada, and Asia. Now, the language is big globally.

After the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, Kiswahili was made an official language in the country, meaning one can demand to be addressed in it in any office.

Despite the strides made, the majority of Kenyans still struggle to express themselves as the language takes a beating from variants such as sheng.

Wellingtone Nyongesa, a Swahili editor said the country has long struggled with a colonial mindset, which has slowed the language's adoption.

According to Nyongesa, the new post-colonial rulers helped colonial prejudices to grow against African ways, where some were more black Englishmen who despised all things African.

“You would be punished at school in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s in Kenya if you spoke your mother tongue but rewarded for speaking English. In some schools in the 60s and 70s, you would be punished for speaking Kiswahili,” he narrated.

Nyongesa calls for the government and policymakers to work together to eradicate colonial prejudices against African traditions. 

He said this has had an impact on Kenya's education system where a ‘mzungu’ education frowned upon things African; language, religion, and traditions.

The editor argues that because of this, Kenya was and still is embroiled in a culture that seems to think that knowledge of English reflects intelligence while knowledge of the native language reflects a lack of education and therefore ignorance.

His sentiments are echoed by Dr Khamisi Babusa, a Kiswahili lecturer at the Kenyatta University (KU) who advocates for the formation of the Baraza la Kiswahili (Kiswahili Council) to spearhead language promotion activities in the country.

Babusa cites a lack of impending policies as one of the factors holding the country back, calling for affirmative action.

Hezekiel Gikambi, a Kiswahili Scholar and author, says there is an urgent need for Kenyans to embrace Swahili as an official language and as a beautiful cultural product to be embraced, just as Tanzania has.

“We need to have a national structure to recognize our heroes and experts who have moved Kiswahili to great heights in Kenya,” Gikambi notes.

The likes of the late Prof Ken Walibora, Prof Sheikh Nabhany, Prof Mwenda Mukuthuria, and the late Ahmed Nassir, Gikambi says, should be feted in memory of their contributions.

“The living equivalent should be awarded while still alive. A case in point is the Lamu-born Ustadh Mahmud Abdikadir Mau, who is right now at the University of Bayreuth in Germany working on classical Swahili poems that are written in Arabic scripts. We have a few Kenyan poets who have such abilities and knowledge,” he says.

However, Gikambi observes, that the country is making commendable steps and that progress is visible.